MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Prospects for legislation to crack down on slaughterhouse abuses dimmed Tuesday even as new allegations emerged that a Grand Isle slaughterhouse accused of mistreating calves also had numerous food safety violations.
"There may be some people out there who don't give a hoot about the welfare of animals, but they care about what their kids eat," said Dr. Dean Wyatt, a public health veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who oversaw inspections at the now-closed Bushway Packing Co. slaughterhouse.
But key legislators — including the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture committees — said they doubted a Senate-passed bill creating sharply increased fines and penalties for slaughterhouse abuses would become law this year. The legislation calls for repeat offenders to be shut down permanently.
Instead, lawmakers appeared headed toward a more modest bill giving the Legislature's backing to a Livestock Advisory Council created by the executive branch last year, and letting that panel craft new rules for the treatment of animals headed for slaughter.
The issue emerged last fall when the Humane Society of the United States released video recorded by an investigator working undercover at the Bushway slaughterhouse. It appeared to show calves being skinned alive, having their throats cut while conscious, being kicked and shocked with an electric prod and other abuses.
State and federal authorities began criminal investigations, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack labeled "inexcusable" the behavior of a USDA inspector whom the videotape depicted witnessing some of the abuses and failing to intervene. The inspector has since been fired, said Wyatt, who was his boss.
Since then, though, no criminal charges have been filed. Two of the three Bushway owners are seeking to reopen under a new name — Champlain Valley Meats. And lawmakers appear poised to wrap up their session for the year this weekend without taking the tough steps sought by some.
While the alleged inhumane handling of animals has drawn attention, Wyatt told lawmakers little had been paid to another problem at the Bushway slaughterhouse: meat being processed by the facility without proper safeguards against contamination by E. coli bacteria and antibiotics.
He said in an interview his staff cited Bushway for 23 unsafe food violations during a two-week inspection period in August and September, adding that such food safety violations often accompany violations of humane-treatment rules.'
"It's appalling that nothing has been done. It's appalling," Katherine Collins of Barre, one of a small cadre of unpaid animal rights activists following the issue at the Statehouse, said in an interview Tuesday.
Cindy Maguire, an assistant attorney general and head of her office's criminal division, said an investigation was continuing and that any announcement about criminal charges would likely occur within the next several weeks.
Wyatt, who reported three earlier cases of inhumane animal handling at the Bushway slaughterhouse last year, said he was disturbed that no state investigator had interviewed him in the six months during which the criminal investigations had been under way.
Maguire said she could not comment on whom investigators had interviewed.
Others on the House panel appeared to share the view of a member, Rep. Kitty Toll, a Danville Democrat, who said, "I feel a whole industry is being punished when one group is causing the problem."
State Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee said in an interview Tuesday that he thought the legislation was an overreaction, and likely would severely harm a fledgling slaughterhouse industry his agency has been trying to promote as more Vermonters appear interested in buying locally grown meats.
"I don't think they're sweeping it under the rug," Allbee said of opponents of the stiffest measures. But he said many issues need to be sorted out before new laws are crafted.